Owning and operating an independent music store can be an exciting, gratifying experience. I think many store owners got into this business with a bit of starry-eyed wonder. We were thrilled to be in the music business. We were the cool guys in town…the guys who owned “the guitar store.”

Over time, reality sinks in. Being cool doesn’t pay the bills. The rent is due regardless of whether anyone has spent money with us. Some inventory dies on the shelf and cannot be sold, even at cost. We don’t have the gear our customers are asking for, and they’re looking for lines that aren’t available to us for one reason or another.

On some days, being a music store owner can produce more stress than fun. It’s easy for each of us to feel alone in the world…as though nobody really understands our trials and the pressures of online competition, and with no sympathetic group to which we can bare our souls. Until now, that is.

Hundreds of music store owners have found a sympathetic ear, wise counsel and a sea of understanding by joining the Independent Music Store Owners (iMSO) group. It is, as far as I know, the only group that exists solely to serve the needs of music store owners. The group is an anomaly as far as business groups go. There are no dues, membership is tightly controlled and only owners of real, brick-and-mortar stores are allowed access. The membership vetting process can take several weeks. But, once an application is approved, the music store owner is no longer alone.

When describing the iMSO, it is best to start by clarifying what it is not. It’s not a buying group. It’s not an insurance pool. It’s not the Illuminati. It’s not a substitute for NAMM membership. (Nothing is a substitute for NAMM. Most iMSO members are ardent NAMM members.) There are no monthly meetings. Membership is free to all qualifying independent music store owners.

Now, let’s turn to what the iMSO is…. The iMSO is a private, online discussion forum that is devoted to educating our members, making our members’ stores more profitable and solving problems. Store owner members have dozens of forums in which they can participate, allowing them to discuss credit card processors, warranty issues, new product lines, old product lines, advertising and more. Looking for a cost-effective way to market a new service in your store? Just ask! Chances are good that someone in the group has already found a way to do it, and they’ll be happy to share. Having an issue with a particular distributor or manufacturer? Start a thread! You’ll find out pretty quickly if it’s a common problem or if it’s just you. The iMSO site contains thousands and thousands of threads, spread across more than 30 separate forums.

For many new members, one of the most surprising aspects of the group is the sense of openness found within it. iMSO members who post in the forums (not everyone posts; some members only read the forums) usually get honest and frank responses from other members. Feeling stressed after dealing with a particularly difficult customer? Bring it up in the forums! Chances are good that you’ll get some fresh insight and, just maybe, a renewed sense of humor from reading the replies other members leave. Stuck on how to recruit a new teacher? Search the forums! The subject has been addressed more than once.

The important thing is this: You need to know that, as a store owner, you are not alone. With many thousands of threads on the forums, you’ll find that almost every topic that concerns a store owner has been discussed at one time or another.

iMSO Vice President Jim DeStafney, who is the Owner of Blues Angel Music (Pensacola FL), has been an iMSO member for almost eight years. When asked about the iMSO, DeStafney said, “I started my business, like many music store owners, with no business training and on a shoestring budget. Frankly, I spent years mastering the very basics of running a music retail business, learning strictly by trial and error. Once I joined iMSO, I realized I had instantaneously acquired a “band of brothers.” These brothers have a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels, and they are more than willing to share their experiences and best business practices, product recommendations and administrative expertise.”

Here are some sample threads from just the last few months:

  • A better way to display gig bags
  • Shopatron activity
  • Return policies
  • eBay sales
  • Reverb.com sales
  • Robocallers
  • Preferred airport for Anaheim
  • NAMM Idea Center
  • MAP violations

If any of those topics interests you, iMSO might be the understanding ear you’ve been looking for.

iMSO also helps store owners find ways to plug into the local community. With the assistance of D’Addario and Curt Mangan, we host “Strings for Food” each November. During that event, stores restring guitars in exchange for non-perishable food items, which are then donated to local food banks. When one of our members comes up with a great idea for an in-store event, he or she shares that story with the rest of the iMSO family. Photos, media promotions and other interest-generating ideas are a regular feature in the forums. Five iMSO members did a NAMM Idea Center session in Nashville last July that focused on “Five Events To Generate Traffic.” DeStafney said it best when he remarked, “iMSO is a million-dollar team of consultants that’s available to me for free. Eight years after joining, I still visit the forums daily.”

The iMSO forums are a warm, welcoming place to visit at the end of the day. Finding someone you can help, seeing a really good store-related cartoon or just reading a story about how good customer service can pay off is just what a store owner needs before heading home.

The requirements for membership are pretty basic: Successful applicants own a brick-and-mortar store with a limited number of locations (no large chains), at least 60 percent of their revenue is not from online sales, they have an established business history and they satisfy a few other easy-to-meet qualifications.

The application to join can be found by visiting musicstoreowners.com and clicking on “Join iMSO.”

Allen McBroom is President of the Independent Music Store Owners (iMSO) group, as well as a Partner in Backstage Music (Starkville MS).

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